The most common type of DNA profiling today for criminal cases and other types of forensic uses is called "STR" (short tandem
Using DNA to distinguish between two individuals is a tricky matter, because close to 99.9 percent of our DNA is the same
as everybody else's DNA. DNA that actually codes for proteins cannot vary much without rendering the proteins ineffective. The four nucleotide bases
that make up the backbone of DNA provide instructions for assembling the amino acids in proteins by being in a precise sequence,
with each three-base group coding for a specific amino acid. If that DNA base sequence is altered (or "mutated," as scientists
generally say), the sequence of amino acids in the resulting protein can also be altered. As a result, because protein function
derives from a specific amino acid sequence, the protein may not work.
Think of DNA as the "blueprint" for a house and proteins as the steel, timber, bricks and mortar, from which the house will
be built. A brick that is mostly sand instead of clay will crumble, and mortar with the wrong ratio of cement to aggregate
will fail. Likewise, a protein with the wrong sequence of amino acids often won't function. (This analogy fails to capture
the complexity of the DNA-protein system, however, because proteins are not only the "bricks" and "timber." Some "read" the
"blueprint" and supervise the building, others are the "bricklayers" and "carpenters," and still others maintain and keep
the house functioning after it is built.) Non-functional or missing proteins are the basis for many genetic diseases. Useful
differences in the DNA must be found in the remaining onetenth of one percent, which is not known to code for anything specific.
Because this section of the DNA's precise sequence is not so important, it is quite variable, which makes it possible to use
DNA to distinguish between individuals.
Among the 3 million or so DNA bases that do not code for proteins are regions with multiple copies of short repeating sequences
of these bases, which make up the DNA backbone (for example, TATT). These sequences repeat a variable number of times in different individuals. Such regions are called "variable number short
tandem repeats," and they are the basis of STR analysis. A collection of these can give nearly irrefutable evidence statistically
of a person's identity because the likelihood of two unrelated people having the same number of repeated sequences in these
regions becomes increasingly small as more regions are analyzed.
Autosomal chromosomes are those not involved in determining a person's gender, and STRs on these chromosomes are called autosomal
STRs. Other STRs used for forensic purposes are called Y-STRs, which are derived solely from the male sexdetermining Y chromosome.
Profiles based on autosomal STRs provide far stronger statistical power than profiles based on Y-STRs, because autosomal DNA
is randomly exchanged between matched pairs of chromosomes in the process of making egg and sperm cells. That's how, with
billions of humans on the planet, no two people who are not identical twins are exactly alike. Profiles based on Y-STRs are
statistically weaker because only males have a Y chromosome and all males get theirs from their fathers, so all males in any
paternal line have nearly identical Y chromosomes. Given enough Y-STRs, which scientists call loci, a Y-STR profile can offer
substantial power to discriminate between individuals, but this type of profile is certainly not as powerful as an autosomal
In the United States, 13 autosomal STR loci are now accepted as the system used for forensic purposes. Given a robust crime scene DNA sample with good data for all 13 STRs, the likelihood of a person unrelated to the actual
perpetrator having a perfect match for all 13 is typically around 1 in 1 billion. By contrast, experimental work with a very
robust set of 30 Y-STR loci showed a probability of about 1 in 50,000 for a perfect match.
Back to: Extending the Time to Collect DNA in Sexual Assault Cases.
 Basics of DNA Typing (accessed July 7, 2010).
 TATT stands for a specific string of nucleotide bases, thymine-adeninethymine- thymine. Thymine and adenine are two of the
four bases frequently found in DNA. The other two are cytosine (C) and guanine (G).
 Norrgard, K., "Forensics, DNA Fingerprinting, and CODIS" (accessed July 7, 2010) Exit Notice, Nature Education 1(1) (2008).
 Hanson, E., and J. Ballantyne, "A Highly Discriminating 21 Locus Y-STR 'Megaplex' System Designed to Augment the Minimal
Haplotype Loci for Forensic Casework," Journal of Forensic Sciences 49 (January 2004): 1-12.
Date Created: March 3, 2011